Predicting the arrival of a new baby can warm a woman’s heart. But pregnancy can also affect your heart in other ways. In fact, the heart pumps about 50% more blood than usual during pregnancy. And growing evidence confirms that women who experience health complications during pregnancy (including high blood pressure and gestational diabetes) face a higher risk of cardiovascular disease later, according to a recent scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA).
Cardiovascular disease, or MCV, includes heart attacks, strokes, peripheral vascular disease (narrowed arteries in the legs), and heart failure.
What conditions and complications during pregnancy affect subsequent heart health?
Along with high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, four additional health problems during pregnancy may increase the risk of future cardiovascular problems:
- premature birth (giving birth before the 37th week of pregnancy)
- the birth of a baby weighing less than 5 pounds and 8 ounces
- placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the uterus before birth)
- fatal death (death of a baby before childbirth).
About 10% to 15% of women experience these or other adverse pregnancy outcomes, some of which can also affect the baby’s health.
“Women who had one or more of these adverse pregnancy outcomes should be aware of their increased cardiovascular risk and share their story with their doctors, even if they gave birth decades ago,” says Dr. Kathryn M. Rexrode, head of the Women’s Health division at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the AHA statement.
Development of high blood pressure, preeclampsia or diabetes during pregnancy
Gestational hypertension is defined as a blood pressure reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher after 20 weeks of pregnancy in a woman with previously normal blood pressure. This condition increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease later in life by 67%. The most severe cases of high blood pressure during pregnancy are marked by signs of damage to the liver, kidneys or other vital organs. Known as preeclampsia, this condition is associated with a 2.7-fold higher risk of subsequent cardiovascular disease.
Women who develop type 2 diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes) appear to have a 68% higher risk of developing future cardiovascular disease, and their chances of having type 2 diabetes after pregnancy are multiplied by ten.
Compared to white women, black, Hispanic, or Asian women tend to have more adverse results in pregnancy. They also have higher rates of other factors related to heart problems. The AHA statement notes that managing heart-related risks is especially important to them.
This means following heart-healthy habits such as not smoking, eating a plant-based diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining a normal weight, says Dr. Rexrode. Women at risk should also maintain a close understanding of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar to make sure they stay within the normal range. To ensure this, lifestyle changes or medications, or both, may be needed.
The statement also suggests that longer, more focused attention after birth (sometimes called the fourth trimester) could provide a good opportunity to examine women for cardiovascular disease and provide advice on preventing future heart-related problems. In the meantime, talk to your doctor about your entire health history (including pregnancies) and learn about heart health measurements that you can take today that can help you in the coming decades.
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